In one of this weekend’s more discussed bits of commentary, Christy Wampole writes against irony and its archetypal manifestation, the Millennial hipster. For Wampole, the brand of irony so dominant among middle-class Caucasians of a certain age “bespeaks a cultural numbness, resignation and defeat.” Having recognized elements of its comfort in herself, she asks what it would take to overcome the cultural pull of irony and embrace earnest sentiment:
Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.
And what’s at stake?
The ironic life is certainly a provisional answer to the problems of too much comfort, too much history and too many choices, but it is my firm conviction that this mode of living is not viable and conceals within it many social and political risks. For such a large segment of the population to forfeit its civic voice through the pattern of negation I’ve described is to siphon energy from the cultural reserves of the community at large. People may choose to continue hiding behind the ironic mantle, but this choice equals a surrender to commercial and political entities more than happy to act as parents for a self-infantilizing citizenry.
Of course, by now there’ve been several iterative cycles of these prominently published assaults on the urban hipster, which itself proves to be a surprisingly resilient species despite having evolved a coat of bulls-eyes. And while Wampole’s piece is a nice addition, we’d submit, following Jonathan Lear, that irony can serve a particular function that’s as revelatory and life changing as Wampole’s is distancing.
In A Case for Irony, Lear describes ironic disruption as a kind of uncanniness, an “unheimlich maneuver”:
The life and identity that I have hitherto taken as familiar have suddenly become unfamiliar. However, there is this difference: in an ordinary experience of the uncanny, there is mere disruption: the familiar is suddenly and disruptively experienced as unfamiliar. What is peculiar to irony is that it manifests passion for a certain direction.
In near-direct conversation with the objections Wampole presents, Lear notes the commonplace assumption that irony is merely a form of detachment, a lack of commitment or seriousness. In contrast, Lear argues that irony can function to shock one out of the comfort of an assumed practical identity. It’s irony that can best strike human beings with the realization that we’re perhaps not what we’ve always thought we were and, in so doing, force us to become.
This is what makes irony compelling. It is the mirror image of an oracle. An oracle begins with an outside source telling a person who he is in terms he at first finds alien and enigmatic. Then there is an unsettling process of familiarization: the person comes to understand what the oracle means as he comes to recognize that he is its embodiment. And, of course, the recognition of the meaning of the oracle represents more than an increase in propositional knowledge—for example, that I am the one who murdered his father and married his mother. It is the occasion for a more or less massive disruption of my sense of who I am; and a disorientation in a world that, until now, had been familiar. With this robust form of irony, the movement is in the opposite direction: a person gives a familiar designation to himself. He takes on a practical identity. As the irony unfolds, not only does the designation become weirdly unfamiliar; one suddenly experiences oneself as called to one-knows-not-what, though one would use the same language as before…
So, I may identify as X, and be certain of what that means. If, though, I’m exposed to another way of being X, which I’d never imagined but immediately recognize to be the X for which I should strive, I’ve thus had my self-designation rendered unfamiliar but, should I aim to become this newly revealed X, my existence may fundamentally change while requiring no new self-definition. I may become what I didn’t know I wasn’t, and end up quite different yet finally what I thought I was.
Lear’s irony isn’t incompatible with Wampole’s, because for Lear the function of irony is as a disruption, not a way of life. In fact, much of what drove Lear’s analysis was a sense that contemporary culture has misunderstood irony and its importance. But Lear’s work should help us to understand the condition’s ubiquity, and perhaps better script a way out. To Walpole, irony is a means of hiding from the demands of modern life, and one can, with little effort, shake it off and face the world in earnest. But if we conceive of our ironic age as a prolonged disruption, a stalled shock of the uncanny, the way out isn’t to force ourselves to again embrace what we’d once thought of as X; it’s to become what we now know X to be. If your definition of responsible modern adulthood is just not wearing Justin Bieber t-shirts, then you just change your clothes. But if that definition strikes you as inadequate, you may not yet be certain of what to wear next.
Earlier this year Lear discussed A Case for Irony with Alasdair MacIntyre. You can read an adaptation of their public conversation on our website.